Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is working to try and delay a Knesset vote set for next week on the judicial overhaul amid unprecedented opposition from within the military and growing protests, a TV report said Friday night.
Responding to the report, Gallant said in a statement that he “is taking measures in order to reach a wide consensus, and in order to ensure the security of the State of Israel, while leaving the IDF separate from political discourse.”
The defense minister was instrumental in getting the controversial overhaul paused in late March. After calling for a halt to the legislation in a public address, he was fired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leading to massive protests, a nationwide labor strike and the shuttering of Ben Gurion airport.
Netanyahu temporarily suspended the legislation, agreed to talks with the opposition under President Herzog’s aegis that have since broken down, and eventually reinstated Gallant.
This time, Channel 12 reported, Gallant is trying to work within the political system to try and defuse the crisis that deepened Friday when more than 1,142 Israeli Air Force reservists, including more than 400 pilots, issued a letter announcing that they will suspend their volunteer reserve duty in protest of the government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system.
The reservists’ announcement — unprecedented in scale and in terms of the centrality to the Israel Defense Forces of the signatories — was the latest to send shockwaves through the IDF, which is struggling to stem a growing flood of reserve troops dropping out of volunteer duty to protest the overhaul, as defense officials warned the phenomenon could affect national military preparedness.
To try and avert this, Gallant was meeting with the heads of coalition parties and the opposition to try and reach an agreement to extend the summer session of the Knesset, which is due to end next week, in order to allow a compromise to be reached on the so-called “reasonableness” bill, Channel 12 reported without quoting sources.
The second and third readings on the bill, an amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary, will begin on Sunday in the Knesset plenum, and the bill is expected to be approved and passed into law on Monday or Tuesday.
The timeframe would not allow for the bill to be renegotiated without extending the summer session.
The Ynet news site said Gallant had held several conversations Friday with IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and IAF chief Tomer Bar to discuss the ramifications of the protest letter.
Ynet said Gallant could not remain “indifferent” to the effect on Israel’s military readiness.
The report said that Gallant was not the only coalition leader who was looking for compromise, with Shas chief Aryeh Deri also opposed to the one-sided manner with which such far-reaching legislation was being pushed through by the more radical elements in the coalition including Justice Minister Yariv Levin and the far-right leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir.
“Deri is angry over the behavior and comments from Levin, Smotrich and Ben Gvir. He wants to stop the race into the abyss,” Ynet quoted a Deri confidant as saying.
Ben Gvir and Smotrich both dismissed the Air Force reservists’ protest Friday and vowed to push ahead with the legislation.
“The purpose of the refuseniks’ letter is to hold the Israeli government hostage and impose on it the political position of a minority that believes that the country belongs to them, as they trample on the people’s army and violate the will of the people who gave the government a mandate to reform the legal system,” Ben Gvir said.
“We will not give in to this dangerous attempt to create chaos, so that the army, which in a democratic country is subordinate to the government, will be the one that bends the government,” he said.
There was no public comment from Netanyahu, who in recent days was quoted as downplaying the opposition from the pilots, saying Israel could do without “a few squadrons.”
In a speech to the nation on Thursday night, Netanyahu said that the actual threat to Israel’s democracy was not his government’s planned sweeping judicial reform legislation — which will remove checks and balances on the Knesset and bring most judicial appointments under political control — but refusals to show up for reserve military duty.
“In a democracy, the military is subordinate to the army, it doesn’t subordinate the government. When military elements attempt to dictate government policy via threats, that is illegitimate in any democracy. And if they succeed… that is the end of democracy,” he said.
In their (Hebrew) letter addressed to Knesset members, Halevi and Bar, the reservists called on the government to “reach broad agreements” with regard to the judicial overhaul, and “strengthen the trust in the judicial system by all parts of society, and preserve its independence… Legislation that allows the government to act in an extremely unreasonable manner will harm the security of the State of Israel, will cause a loss of trust and a violation of my consent to continue risking my life, and will us lead, with deep sorrow and no choice, to us suspending [our] volunteer reserve duty.”
Channel 12 said the letter represented the tip of the iceberg of Air Force and IDF reservists who would refuse to serve if the legislation is passed next week.
Veteran Channel 12 analyst Amnon Abramovich said the effect of the Air Force protest was that the force was effectively no longer “operational.” However, the channel’s military analysts said that the situation was dire, but not yet that bad.
Former IAF chief Eitan Ben-Eliahu told the channel that the reservists’ letter meant Israel was now deep in crisis, and compared the situation to the existential crisis Israel faced at the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
It doesn’t matter at this stage who is right and who is wrong, he said. “We have to find a way out of this crisis. It’s two in the afternoon [of the Yom Kippur War] and the Egyptian and Syria attack has begun.”
The bill going ahead next week would ban the Supreme Court and lower courts from using the reasonableness standard to review decisions made by the government and cabinet ministers.
Proponents say the bar on the use of the doctrine is needed to halt judicial interference in government decisions, arguing that it amounts to unelected judges substituting their own judgment for that of elected officials.
Opponents argue, however, that the legislation is far too broad and will weaken the court’s ability to review decisions that harm civil rights and hinder its ability to protect the independence of senior civil servants who hold sensitive positions, such as the attorney general, police commissioner and others.
The measure will likely be the first part of the government’s plan to remake the judiciary to pass into law, and street protests have ratcheted up as it has moved toward its final votes before passage into law. Thousands of activists are currently marching from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem with plans to demonstrate outside parliament as the vote takes place. Wednesday also saw a warning strike from the Israel Medical Association.
Meanwhile, Hebrew media reported Friday that the head of the Histadrut Labor Federation Arnon Bar-David and the head of the business sector Dubi Amitai had met with Netanyahu in order to try and find a compromise deal.